There is no disputing the centrality of sport in the life of an athlete.
It dictates routine, it determines diet, it drives priorities, it denies respite and, of course, it delivers joy.
Ultimately – for better or for worse – sport defines people, whether they be professional or student athletes.
“[Sport] is really central to my routine and takes up a lot of my time. In terms of identity it’s probably too central. If you spend so much time doing something I think it has to be integral to who you are”, says Irish pentathlete and second-year Trinity Computer Science and Business student Isobel Radford-Dodd.
For Ireland and Leinster lock and Trinity fourth-year international business student Joe McCarthy, sport is similarly indispensable.
There was an adjustment phase both in term of physical, in the sense of ‘what do I need to keep myself fit’ but also social, because that was my social life for so many years
“Sport is extremely important to me right now and it always will be in my life. There is nothing else I would rather be doing right now than pursuing a career in professional rugby.”
Given the vitality of sport to an athlete, it is perhaps unsurprising that life after sport – that is, when one retires from a passion that is not only their job but also their lifestyle – is such a significant adjustment.
When ex-Ireland Women’s rugby captain Fiona Coghlan retired from the sport in which she won 85 international caps, the difference was immediately tangible.
“There was an adjustment phase both in terms of physical, in the sense of ‘what do I need to keep myself fit’ but also social, because that was my social life for so many years”, she reflects in something of a matter-of-fact tone.
Nostalgia is not entirely absent from her voice, however.
If you spend so much time doing something I think it has to be integral to who you are
“It’s back to that identity thing that you are known as, let’s say, Fiona Coghlan the rugby player or whatever, whereas you’re not that anymore … and sometimes that’s a tough thing to say.”
Coghlan is not alone in experiencing a loss of identity. Gearoid Towey is an Irish three-time Olympic rower, former world champion and founder of Crossing the Line Sport – a charity offering advice and information on athlete’s wellbeing and transitioning out of sport.
Having seen and heard firsthand the struggles of so many athletes, Towey – who himself graduated from Trinity in 2007 – is more aware than most of how common an issue life after sport is.
“Finding another driver in life is something many athletes only tackle when they finish sport or when they are faced with an injury or a selection issue”, explains Towey.
He himself was not exempt from confusion. “That’s when I went reading about the issue [adjusting to life after sport] and didn’t find much online about it at the time. So that’s when I set up the website [Crossing the Line] because nobody had yet. That kept me busy and I learned a lot about many aspects of business etc in developing it.”
Sport is extremely important to me right now and it always will be in my life. There is nothing else I would rather be doing right now than pursuing a career in professional rugby
For student athletes, problems associated with retirement may seem distant. However, an injury-induced spell away from sport can augur the more permanent sense of loss that retirement has induced in so many ex-athletes.
After breaking her collar bone in 2019, the year that Radford-Dodd spent unable to compete was in many ways a sample of the struggle that retirement can inflict.
“I think the combination of starting Sixth Year (at school) and not being able to train to the level I wanted had its effects on me. I just missed the sport. I didn’t feel fit or physically strong like my usual self, and mentally having that outlet would have been really helpful with the stress of Sixth Year.”
Following a significant hamstring injury that sidelined him for six months, McCarthy also realised just how dominant – and yet vulnerable – a facet sport was in his life.
“Pretty soon you really start to miss being part of a team and you just want to be out playing rugby”, he explains.
Finding another driver in life is something many athletes only tackle when they finish sport or when they are faced with an injury or a selection issue and that issue is not confined to one sport or another – it’s about the individual
“It did make me realise how much I love playing sport and how easily it can be taken away from you.”
Through Crossing the Line, Towey has seen firsthand how some student athletes still struggle with planning for life both during and after sport. “We get lots of student athletes and we have run student athlete programs in the past”, he notes.
With age therefore not a discriminating factor in determining who suffers from the anxiety of “losing sport”, it is equally important to establish whether athletes from certain sports struggle with retirement more than athletes from other sports.
Towey argues that there is no obvious pattern. “The range of sportspeople who visit our site shows that this issue isn’t confined to one sport in particular, the common denominator is purpose in life.
“Finding another driver in life is something many athletes only tackle when they finish sport or when they are faced with an injury or a selection issue and that issue is not confined to one sport or another – it’s about the individual.”
I didn’t feel fit or physically strong like my usual self, and mentally having that outlet would have been really helpful with the stress of Sixth Year
However, in Coghlan’s experience while working with retired athletes at Navy Blue – Ireland’s leading sports marketing agency – one genre of athlete in particular suffers more than most.
“I think maybe some of the Olympians. Probably some of them that just retired following the last Olympics are still finding their way. So they’re coming out of sports in their early 30s … they would have been training as full time athletes so they wouldn’t have necessarily worked”, she says.
“I think athletes that train full time that don’t have a job, definitely find that transition a lot tougher.”
Fortunately, Radford-Dodd – an Olympic prospect who may become a full-time pentathlete after university – is at least aware of the risk of being overly engulfed by sport.
“I think a balance is really important. Again, in terms of identity it can be really dangerous to have sport as your only personality trait. I love my sport but time away from it, even mentally, I think is good. Pentathlon is my default daydream, so I need the distraction away from it during the day and college is a good one.”
I think people are probably becoming more fearful of it now because they’re hearing so much more evidence in the media
While ex-Olympians may well have a tougher time than most, for participants in a sport as physically attritional as, for instance, rugby, retirement bears an additional threat.
As shown by the lawsuit brought by over 185 former and current professional players against rugby union’s governing bodies, sport-induced brain damage is far from uncommon. It can make the already unsettling process of retirement disorientating when one struggles with issues such as not remembering much of your career.
It can also make retirement very frightening in moments like when you forget to turn your car off. Or when you don’t recognise your own child. Or contemplate taking your own life.
In light of the dramatic implications sport can have on life in retirement, it is perhaps crucial that student athletes – particularly budding rugby players – are aware of the risks that they may be unconsciously taking. However, that is not an easy conversation to have.
“The decisions people make in sport in their early 20s may not have the best impact later in life but it is hard to tell a young person in their prime not to do a sport because it might have consequences later in life”, sympathises Towey.
I think athletes that train full time that don’t have a job, definitely find that transition a lot tougher
“That conversation is very difficult because it’s hard to stop a sport when it’s giving you so much at that time of your life.”
It is a conversation that has not escaped McCarthy’s notice.
“Concussion is definitely something that plays on your mind, mainly because it’s such a grey area and there’s very little concrete protocols in place. However, I think rugby is moving in the right direction with reducing the amount of contact in training and the HIA protocols, he reasons.
One positive sign reinforcing this is that the conversation at least exists – as Coghlan notes, even a decade ago it is a conversation that was not at all considered.
“You know what, I never even thought about it and even playing I never would go into training or games thinking about it … I think people are probably becoming more fearful of it now because they’re hearing so much more evidence in the media”.
It’s definitely daunting to think about, the highs and lows of sport are something that not everyone gets to experience
At this stage, any help with the brain-damage dimension of retirement will likely be palliative rather than remedial or preventative.
More promising, however, is that when it comes to dealing with the loss of identity that often accompanies retirement, pre-emptive help is increasingly at hand for athletes.
“In Leinster we have a player development officer”, explains McCarthy.
“She makes sure we have at least something else going on outside of rugby. Any career, financial or mental related worries you may have she is extremely helpful to players and well equipped to guide and advise.”
Coghlan notes a growth of similar support in the women’s game.
At this stage, any help with the brain-damage dimension of retirement will likely be palliative rather than remedial or preventative
“Nowadays, and near the latter end of my career … we’d have a player development manager who would go through things like university courses or options, job options, and probably psych [psychological] help there if you needed people to talk to.”
As women’s rugby transitions from amateur to professional, these preventative measures will be increasingly important. Players will no longer have the external anchor – albeit an anchor which often borders on burden – of concurrent employment.
Playing professionally may mean that the listlessness of retirement becomes a more pressing issue.
“I think just because that’s what you [will] live and breathe and you have no other outlet, that’s all you know, basically. So if you don’t have something else outside when you stop that, it’s definitely a harder adjustment”, Coghlan says.
With all this in mind, it seems a question of when rather than if student athletes ought to begin thinking about the finish line – not that this is an easy prospect.
Having something else to focus on allows athletes to do something else and come back to training mentally fresh the next day
“It’s definitely daunting to think about, the highs and lows of sport are something that not everyone gets to experience. There’s a fear it would be hard to replace in your occupational life. It is hard to say seeing I don’t have any idea what I want to do as a career. But I think I’ll always be doing some sport”, reckons Radford-Dodd.
“I think it’ll be very hard to fill the void as there’s nothing quite like professional sport”, muses McCarthy.
“Life after rugby is something that plays on my mind quite a bit. But I’d hope that my business degree, the connections I am making [and] the resilience and hard work needed to play pro rugby will give me a solid foundation to succeed in any area I enter.”
While Radford-Dodd and McCarthy clearly have a something of a rounded outlook on the sport-life nexus, Towey has advice for any student athletes for whom life is perhaps overshadowed by sport.
“It is essential for sports people to have something else going on in their lives to pull the intensity out of it. The training field is where the intensity should be and stay. Having something else to focus on allows athletes to do something else and come back to training mentally fresh the next day.”
I’d hope that my business degree, the connections I am making [and] the resilience and hard work needed to play pro rugby will give me a solid foundation to succeed in any area I enter
For that reason, he also implores students to make the most of university itself.
“When we work with student athletes we get them to use every resource that is being offered to them and embrace the student part as much as the athlete part”.
In clasping onto the present and now of their sporting careers, student athletes must not forget the future. For the balance – or lack thereof – they reach now will surely shape their life after sport. And not in an insignificant way.